Sunday, December 29, 2013

Life/Death, Christmas and Ice Storms

White (from the Fragile Series)   60x72"   oil/cold wax on canvas © 2013 Janice Mason Steeves

Fragile.  It's the name I gave to the series of paintings currently on exhibit at the Burlington Art Centre in Burlington, Ontario.  I was responding to the illness of a friend.  Little did I know then that I would have my own brush with fragility not once but twice during the month of December.

Early in the month I was driving on a two-lane tree-lined road about 5km from home.  It was 5:45pm.  The roads were dry but it was dark.

I heard the noise first. Something big hit the left side of my car.  In the next instant, the body of a deer completely covered my windshield. The glass shattered with the force of it.  I thought it was going to come in on top of me.  But it flew off as quickly as it had landed. I drove on, stunned and covered in glass, trying to see out of the smashed windshield, the wind whistling through the gaping holes.  I decided not to stop. I was close to home and the shoulder of the highway is too small there, the embankment too steep.  

I drove into my garage and looked around me.  Glass covered me and the passenger seat. I couldn't get out the driver's door because it was badly smashed.  I crawled across the glass to get out the passenger side. It was only then that I began to shake from the shock of it.  I had come through unscathed.  Not a bump or a scratch. The air bag hadn't deployed. I was safe.

I relived the incident a few more times in my mind afterward, wondering at my good luck that I didn't lose control of the car. It's a matter of seconds, that line between life and death.  Had I been a second or two earlier, I would have likely seen the deer and swerved.  A second or two later and the deer would have gone through the driver's window and been on top of me.  My timing was right that day or perhaps the gods were with me. Or both.

I drove down the road a few days later with my rental car to check for the deer. I couldn't find any sign of it. The gods might have been with the deer too. 

And then on December 21st, an ice storm hit my area of Ontario.  I was OK for a while with my wood stove and headlamp,  candles and propane cooktop.  But as the ice built up on the enormous cedars that surround my house and line my driveway, they began to snap like matchsticks.  I was terrified one or more would come through my roof.  So I packed up my things and the turkey dinner fixings and went to my daughter's house to stay for a few days.  I came home each day to light the wood stove and heat up the house a little. I was struck by how quickly a home that once was a place of peace and refuge can become a cold and fearful building.  The dishes were unwashed and piled up, jugs of drinking water sat on the counter because the water pump doesn't work when the power is out. Wood chips were scattered over the floor from the  endless loads of firewood I dragged in to warm the house up.  I could see my breath inside my house, and wore my down jacket and hat to keep warm until the wood stove warmed it up a little.

Finally, yesterday, after seven days without power, a neighbour called me at my daughter's to tell me that the power had been restored.  I drove home excited to finally get back to a more normal life.  But as I drove down the driveway, I was met with a wall of cedar trees some of which had fallen down and some that were bent like contortionists right down to the road.  There was no room to drive my car in.  I couldn't even crawl under them.

It is a miracle how people help you when you are in trouble.  A very kind local tree man came to my rescue last night. Working in the dark by the light from his truck's headlamps, he cut down the fallen and bowed cedars, clearing my driveway so I could get through.

It was a month of disasters and miracles, of beauty and terror.  Our family celebrated a joyful Christmas at my daughter's house, and Santa came as usual.  But through the experiences of the ice storm and being hit by the deer, I have been clearly reminded of my own fragility and that of my home, the trees and the land.  We come to depend on the constancy of things, that we will travel safely down the road as we normally do, that our home will be there, unharmed when we come back to it, that the trees that give us shade and beauty will still stand. It's easy to forget that life is fragile and that the only constant is change.  I expect to continue my work on fragility.  I have an even more personal relationship with it now.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Writing About Your Art

Yellow 60x72"  Oil/cold wax on canvas © 2013 Janice Mason Steeves

White 60x72"  Oil/cold wax on canvas © 2013 Janice Mason Steeves

Orange 60x72"  Oil/cold wax on canvas © 2013 Janice Mason Steeves

Blue 60x72"  Oil/cold wax on canvas © 2013 Janice Mason Steeves

Installation shot at the Burlington Art Centre

My exhibition, In Search of Balance at the Burlington Art Centre in Burlington, Ontario, opened on Sunday, November 24th.

In preparation, I needed to have some discussions about my work with the curator, Denis Longchamps, and to rewrite my artist's statement.  An exhibition in a public gallery is such a gift. Not only is it hung so beautifully, but the conversations with the curator and the preparation time, allow an opening into deeper consideration of the work and the long journey that led here.  I've taken the time in preparation, to think about where my work has come from, what truly is important to me, and how I am expressing that.

It's such a difficult task for artists to write about our work in a way that uses language that everyone can understand because it involves trying to clearly understand ourselves and what our art is teaching us.  I have been reading an amazing book called Presence by Senge, Scharmer, Jaworski and Flowers.
Written to teach about creative leadership in business, this incredible book can be translated into any field of endeavour, including art.  The authors reference traditional wisdom but in ways that help us see it anew.  They speak about the importance of developing ourselves as individuals through meditation and self-awareness, and they agree with wisdom traditions, that this individual inner path of development through the heart, will be the necessary journey for the transformation of the earth.

This series of paintings in my exhibition,  took me on my own inner journey.  The work came through the wisdom of my hands, without at first, engaging my mind. It just came. I didn't know what it was about at first. As Baggar Vance (in the movie of the same name) tells his anxious golf student, " Don't think about it, feel it.  The wisdom in your hands is greater than the wisdom of your head will ever be."

 In Search of Balance,  is about fragility, memory, friendship and also strength. The American artist Jim Dine says,"What you do is your comment on the human condition and being part of it.  There is nothing else."

My artist's talk will take place Wednesday, December 4th at 7pm at the Burlington Art Centre
1333 Lakeshore Road, Burlington, ON.  Everyone is welcome.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Painting Intuitively

Green 5'x 6' oil/cold wax on canvas  ©2013 Janice Mason Steeves
I'm preparing for an exhibition in November, at the Burlington Art Centre in Burlington, ON, a beautiful public gallery located on the western end of Lake Ontario.

As is so often the case with art, if you can allow the process to unfold and trust that it will, amazing things can happen.  I believe that art is it's own spiritual journey.

The paintings in this series have led me on such a journey.

Last spring, Denis Longchamps, the Director of Programs, asked to come to my studio to see how the work was progressing. I had an idea for the show and had begun work on it. I had been working on a series of paintings I called Lines of Desire.  This series was an inner journey, where I was exploring my feelings related to the sudden life-threatening illness of a close friend. Denis liked the direction I was going and suggested we meet sometime in September to select work for the show.  My intention was to paint 7 large canvasses, each 5' x 6'.

Shortly after the studio visit, I was away for three weeks, teaching workshops in various parts of Canada.  When I returned, my idea for the series of paintings had simply dried up.  My painting is very much about following my intuition. With no more ideas or enthusiasm for the series, I had to move on to something else. Trouble is, I had no idea where to go. None.

I work in a very intuitive way, not knowing what the outcome will be.  It becomes a conversation between the spontaneous and the deliberate.  I generally begin by playing with my materials, waiting for something to fall into place, rather like the tumblers in a combination lock.  It can be a terrifying experience with a deadline looming. And I was terrified. After several long days of experimenting, the idea came to me to make very transparent rectangular shapes overlapping each other.  I began working with brayers and paint rollers of various sizes.  I still had no idea of the meaning of the work or the direction.

I decided to begin to work on one of the large canvasses with red as a base colour.   As I gradually built up the layers, one over another, working quite slowly so the paint would set up between layers, I added soft oranges and pinks.  The colours transitioned into lighter and lighter colours, ending with very light yellows and oranges.  I had a strong sense then to do a painting that was a monochromatic orange. Various shades of orange.  After that I had a clear idea to make a monochromatic painting using green. When I stood back from the work I saw how the paintings appeared to shimmer and move as though sunlight were moving through panes of glass. I realized that the work was exploring more deeply the idea of the fragility of life.

As I painted, it also became apparent to me that for these seven paintings I would work with the colours red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo/violet and white.  These are the colours of the chakras. Chakras in the metaphysical traditions of Hinduism and Buddhism, are the centres of life force or vital energy in the body.  The work clearly was about the body.

Each painting was painted over many times as I personally explored the chakras and their effect on my own body and life.  I had great trouble painting certain colours.  While I had worked with intense colours before, I had never worked with bright yellows or emerald greens or french ultramarine blue or indigo.  All new territory.

These seven paintings are about the body.  They speak of the balance between vitality and the delicate, fragile quality of our hold on life. 

The exhibition opens on November 24, 2013 from 2-4pm in the main gallery at the Burlington Art Centre, 1333 Lakeshore Road, Burlington, Ontario. It continues until January 12, 2014.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Art Mentoring/Art Coaching Program

With Naomi Gerrard in Winnipeg, Manitoba

Over the past couple of years in my workshops, students have asked about getting one-on-one feedback or doing private critiques with me.  But one artist in a workshop this past summer, Jill Segal, suggested that I do an art mentoring program.  Thanks to her encouragement, I'm just launching it.

The Art Mentoring Program is intended as a distance mentoring program, to provide one-on-one guidance to artists no matter where they live.  The goal is to give artists feedback on their artwork and help them develop a cohesive body of work. There are few opportunities for artists to receive clear feedback and guidance about their work.  Our artists friends are generally reluctant to offer anything other than encouragement, even though they may think differently about certain of our paintings.  Encouragement is definitely helpful.  We all need that. But where do we get clear feedback?  Hard to find.  In workshops, we can get feedback for the work that is produced in the workshop.  But how does that tie together with the other work we like to do?  How can we create a body of work that is more unified?  The Art Mentoring Program will aim to address those issues.

It is intended as an ongoing process.  The artist will send me several images of their work by email.  I will spend some time with the images and we follow that with a telephone conversation to discuss the work.  Our conversation might focus on the process, the direction, the techniques, the elements of art, the body of work, etc.  There are many possible areas to focus our discussion.  The idea is to determine what the goals of the artist are and begin there.

I ask the artist to send me an artist's statement, a CV, their website if they have one, and to write out their short term goals for their work.  They are asked to commit to a minimum of 4 Art Mentoring sessions at a time.

I have had a couple of people ask me how this process would work if I don't actually see the work in person.  I remind them that when you submit work to a juried show, it is in a digital format.  The exhibition is juried by digital images.  When you apply to a gallery for representation, they want to see your images on your website.  If you apply for grants or artist residencies, you submit digital images. The original works are only seen when they are accepted into an exhibition.  It's your images that lead the way.

To find out more about the program and to register, please contact me at:

Friday, September 13, 2013

Where Do Creative Ideas Come From?

Fragile (1370)  30x30"  Oil/cold wax on panel © 2013 Janice Mason Steeves

 In the film, "With My Back to the World",  the artist Agnes Martin talks about how the ideas for her paintings come to her in a flash of inspiration.  In fact, she painted directly from those visions, carefully working out the mathematical division of space.  When she finished a painting, she would simply wait until the next 'inspiration' came to her and didn't paint until it did. Once she had to wait 7 months, she said. My own ideas seem to come to me in  various ways.  Sometimes, like Agnes, I get a picture in my head of a painting.  I never can paint the exact image because I see it only vaguely. It's rather like an idea for a painting or an idea for a series of paintings. 

I find that ideas keep coming the more I work.  So many artists and musicians have said that.  Twyla Tharp said that in her book, "The Creative Habit", as did the composer, John Adams in "Hallelujah Junction".  Just begin.  Just get into the studio and begin. Start dancing.  Start playing the piano.  If I haven't been painting for more than a couple of weeks, I sometimes lose confidence and don't know where to begin.  When that happens, I might work on small paper pieces, knowing that they are completely disposable and unimportant.  Sometimes this playful work will lead into a body of work and reveal it's meaning only after I have completed a number of paintings.

I'm also influenced by place. I love to travel and am always excited to sort of devour the places I visit. When I am on an artist residency, I find I can't just jump into work, but have to walk, look and feel the place and incorporate it into my body. I travelled a couple of times with the famous Canadian landscape artist, Doris McCarthy, who painted and exhibited her work until she was in her mid-90's.  Once we went on an expedition to the Queen Charlotte Islands off the west coast of Canada.  She was in her 80's at the time.  We were on a sailboat that went from one island and Haida village to another.  Doris would jump off the dingy that took us to shore, set up her  gear and immediately begin painting.  That was her routine.  Her ideas came directly from the landscape and she painted what she saw.  I had to learn that my ideas didn't come that way.  They came more indirectly, through the body, from walking, looking and sensing.  And sometimes they don't come right away, on demand.  They have their own timing.   I think that Twyla Tharp and John Adams are right in saying to just begin.  But I think they are also saying that their ideas come through the body.
 Robert MacFarlane in his book The Old Ways, a Journey on Foot,  quotes Rousseau as saying, "I can only meditate when I am walking, when I stop I cease to think; my mind works only with my legs." Kierkegaard speculated that the mind might function optimally at the pedestrian pace of three miles per hour and in a journal entry describes going out for a wander and finding himself 'so overwhelmed with ideas' that he 'could scarcely walk'. 
"Nothing like a nighttime stroll to give you ideas."-Mad-eye Moody

Monday, August 26, 2013

Brice Marden: cold wax medium and calligraphy

Brice Marden Second Letter (Zen Spring)  Oil on linen   96 x 144 "

After teaching my workshop at MISSA on Vancouver Island in July, I visited my artist friend, Barbra Edwards on Pender Island.  She was reading a book about the American abstract artist, Brice Marden, written by Eileen Costello.  I picked up a copy of the book when I came home.

I love connections and interconnections between people and ideas and events. In my last post (click here),  I wrote about my brush explorations workshop, where I painted with red cedar brushes and ink, creating calligraphic forms.  In reading Eileen Costello's book on Brice Marden, I was excited to learn how Chinese calligraphy had such an enormous influence on his work.

Another connection I had to Marden's work was that he was a pioneer in the use of cold wax medium and oil paint.  He was working with it for years before Gamblin started manufacturing it.  From 1965-1981 he used cold wax medium in his minimalist paintings to give an impasto quality to the paint and to make a more matte surface.

 I did not know about the Asian influence on Marden's work.  An exhibition of Japanese Calligraphy at the Japan House Gallery in New York in 1984 marked a major turning point in his work.  He began then, to study Asian culture and calligraphic forms began to enter his work.  He admired Chinese poetry and was inspired to learn that their glyphs were ideograms-symbols that represented an idea or concept.  Marden's work moved into new territory then as he improvised on the concept of ideograms and began drawing his own glyphs that became enormous interconnected lines that seem to move and turn in space.

What interests me most about Brice Marden is his creativity and his wide-ranging interests: Greek friezes, Chinese hand scrolls, scholar's rocks, ancient gardens, the use of twigs and sticks to draw with, and his interest in numerology, all of these entwined within an art historical context.

Marden says about his art, that "It's something very deep and felt...It's all about questions that there are no answers for, it's that whole thing about mystery."  He sounds rather like the painter-priests of Zen Buddhist lineage I'd say.

There is a quote by Ezra Pound in the book: "The artist is always beginning. Any work of art which is not a beginning, an invention, a discovery, is of little worth."  Marden has always followed this path while staying within the tradition of abstraction.

I am delighted to read of Ezra Pound's advice because invention and discovery have always played a crucial role in my painting.

I'm deeply focused right now on the work for my show at the Burlington Art Centre in Burlington, Ontario which opens November 23, 2013.  My new body of work is in progress and I have not yet photographed it.  I'm at the stage where I can't let anyone see it right now.  On the heels of my series of life-affirming paintings influenced by the illness of a good friend, comes a new series that I can't quite find words for just yet.  It seems to be related to light and the fragility of life. ............ More to come.

Monday, August 19, 2013

The Tao of Painting

One brush stroke     Ink on Paper, 16x20" -Janice Mason Steeves 2013

Two days before I taught my Abstract Painting workshop at MISSA on Vancouver Island, I took a 2-day class called Brush Explorations.  The workshop was taught by Lorne Loomer, a long-time teacher of brush painting who was deeply influenced by the West Coast artist/mystic, Jack Wise.

It was so enjoyable being a student for a change and experimenting with painting/calligraphy.  Our first task was to make our own brush.  Lorne provided us with red cedar bark that had washed up on a Vancouver Island beach.  We were to take the bark outside with us as we searched for a stone that spoke to us.  With that stone, we were to beat the red cedar bark into a brush, loosening all the fibres until we had a very spindly, feathery-looking object that we were to use as a brush.  My bark split into several pieces so I ended up with four brushes of various sizes.

Back inside, we dipped our newly made brushes into Chinese ink and then practised making marks on paper. As I stood, bent over my worktable and played with these brushes, I gradually developed a bodily rhythm, moving back and forth in a sort of rocking motion-over to the ink, then back to the paper, then over to the ink-back and forth, swaying as I painted.  It was very hypnotic and meditative.
I learned that given the opportunity, these brushes can speak for themselves.  I would twist and turn them on the paper, but I let them lead the way.

The images began to look like letters in a secret language.

Lorne gave us instructions to make a booklet of 10-12 drawings.  We were to choose quotations from a large selection that he had copied for us.  Then we were to paint with a quotation in mind.

"The bough sings and the ink dances"   Toni Swenson
by Janice Mason Steeves 2013

"I would like to paint the way a bird sings." Claude Monet
by Janice Mason Steeves 2013
In just 2 days, I fell under the spell of the red cedar brush.

Back at home, I bought a book called The Zen Art Book, the Art of Enlightenment by Stephen Addiss and John Daido Loori. The first chapter is called "Art as Teacher".  Loori writes, "During it's early history, Zen was influenced by the refined practices of Chinese poetry, painting and calligraphy.  The Tao of Painting, a book written around 500 C.E. is the canon on the art of painting as a spiritual path. The Taoist approach to art was unique; it involved learning to express the energy or qi of the subject.  By the Song Dynasty in China (960-1279 C.E.), the Zen arts reached a high stage of development with a novel phenomenon; the emergence of painter-priests and poet-priests who produced art that broke with all standard forms of religious and secular art. This art did not inspire faith or facilitate liturgy or contemplation.....It was not used in worship or as a part of prayer. It suggested a new way of seeing and a new way of being that cut to the core of what it meant to be human and fully alive.  Zen expresses the ineffable as it helps to transform the way we see ourselves in the world."

In my own art practice, Art is the Teacher.  Just as the brush led the way for me in the Brush Explorations workshop, so my painting leads the way for me in my studio, taking me into territory I don't always want to go, driving me to take risks and be courageous.  I have to look at my imperfections, and learn to accept them.  Art can transform. "It enlarges the universe, touches the heart, and illuminates the spirit."  John Daido Loori

Monday, August 5, 2013

Teaching Workshops: Simplifying, Focusing and Setting Limits

Lines of Desire 1368  8x8"  Oil/cold wax on panel © 2013 Janice Mason Steeves 

July was a busy month of teaching Abstract Painting with cold wax and oil workshops:  a 5-day workshop at Metchosin International Summer School of the Arts on Vancouver Island, a 3-day workshop in Vancouver and then another 5-day workshop at the Haliburton School of the Arts in Ontario.

While I teach the technique of working with cold wax with oil,  my workshops are about painting. 

I try to make the structure of my workshops very simple and clear.  It's a step-by-step process, each day building toward the next day.  Five-day workshops add a slowness to the pace that is difficult to create in a 3-day workshop.  It takes a couple of days for students to settle into the process-learning a new technique and then letting go of expectations that a painting should be produced in the first two days.  I think that one of the most important messages I was trying to get across was that of simplifying, focusing and setting limits.

Limit your choices, limit your colours, limit your shapes and even the words you use to describe your work.  I wrote a post about limitations after I had been to Inish Maan off the west coast of Ireland.

Creativity comes from limits, not freedom.

Stephen Nachmanovitch, in his book, "Free Play, Improvisation in Life and Art", says, "Sometimes we damn limits, but without them art is not possible. They provide us with something to work with and against.  In practising our craft we surrender, to a great extent, to letting the materials dictate the design. Limits yield intensity.  Working within the limits of the medium forces us to change our own limits.  Improvisation is not breaking with forms and limitations just to be 'free', but using them as the very means of transcending ourselves."

Monday, July 1, 2013

Threads and Journeys

From Cill Rialaig  12x112" acrylic on canvas © 2012 Janice Mason Steeves

There are always threads aren't there, that connect one thing and another in our lives.  I wrote last week about the threads that connected many events in my life that week.  This week I found some new connections.

In preparing a slide presentation for Metchosin International Summer School of the Arts near Victoria, BC, where I'll be teaching next week, I've been looking at images of the paintings I did at my artist residency at Cill Rialaig in Ireland last fall.  I haven't looked at the work for a while and in fact tended to dismiss it as only experimental work.  I've put it on a shelf in my studio and haven't looked at it since I came home last December.  My artist talk is about Journeys: a short version of how I came to be doing the work I'm doing now-where it came from, what influenced it, and what I learn from it.

Sometimes we don't know the strength of a painting until we put it away for a while.  I was using acrylics in this Cill Rialaig piece, a medium I am not very comfortable with or familiar with.  I was surprised-when I looked at it after all these months-at the strength of this painting that I had done in such an experimental manner.  I was surprised also, to notice the similarity between this work and my current work.  The use of shape, line and strong value contrast are present in all of the paintings.  I often tend to dismiss the work I do at artist residencies as simply playful and exploratory. 

In my workshops, I always encourage a playful approach.  So often artists come to workshops with the intention of producing a saleable work of art in a 3-day workshop where they are learning to work with a new medium!   It's a tough job trying to encourage people to let go of the product mentality and simply explore.  That doesn't mean that I feel that finished paintings can be slapped together in a few moments of play.  There is the analytical piece that is important to balance that sense of play.  But it is the playful exploration that leads the way.  It comes first.  There is a sense of detachment to it too, where it's the process that is important not the results.  In fact the results (at that moment) are very secondary and when they become important, it no longer is play. That's the moment though when really creative ideas are born-that moment of detachment and freedom.  The analytical part comes later.

 In putting together my presentation this week, I clearly see how important this attitude is in my own work.  In April, when I was trying to get back to work after a month-long hiatus from the studio, I painted on small sheets of paper in a very carefree, experimental fashion.  I came gradually to realize that this process produced some strong pieces as well.  They shared a close relationship to the Ireland work although I didn't think of it at the time.  That creative process led the way into what has become a body of work.

Although I've spent way too much time this week putting together my presentation, I'm delighted to see how much I've learned from it.....the threads that have been woven, the connections made.

Go and play. Run around. Build something. Break something. Climb a tree. Get dirty. Get in some trouble. Have some fun.”  Brom, The Child Thief

Lines of Desire 1332   16x16"   Oil/cold wax on panel © 2013 Janice Mason Steeves
Lines of Desire 1341    40x36"  Oil/cold wax on panel  © 2013 Janice Mason Steeves

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Intuition in Art

Lines of Desire 1358   12x12"   Oil/cold wax on panel  © Janice Mason Steeves  

Everything we do and hear and see integrates itself into a work of art if we can find the connecting threads. And that artwork in turn can inform us about ourselves.  I went to hear a talk a couple of weeks ago by John Philip Newell, author of the book, New Harmony, the Spirit, the Earth and the Human Soul. He was the Warden of Iona Abbey in Scotland for many years.  He spoke about Celtic Christianity which holds the belief in the interconnectedness of all things and the pivotal importance of the feminine.  That sacred feminine he says, is essential in the healing of  our world today.

This past week, a friend invited me to consider the story of Inanna-a strong, sensual and powerful Goddess who was worshipped in ancient Sumeria-and the journeys she took to recover  sacred powers to give to civilization. This led me to pull out  my books on mythology, where stories of the Goddess  describe how the feminine-that intuitive, nurturing aspect of both men and women-was lost when patriarchy came to replace worship of the Goddess.  I think how art can access that feminine/intuitive side and how learning to understand ourselves is one important goal of art-making. 

 I came across a Youtube video of  Jim Dine speaking about his retrospective at Pace Wildenstein Gallery in 2009. I have always loved his intense and wide-ranging creativity.  One of his main objectives in his art practice, he states, is to explore his own unconscious.  He intuitively goes wherever it takes him, whether making sculptures of his childhood interest-Pinochio, or, writing poetry on walls and objects and then photographing it, or drawing self-portraits on museum walls and then washing them away at the end of the exhibit.

Last Saturday, I went to MOCCA Gallery in Toronto to see a Louise Bourgeois exhibit and to hear the talk by Jonathan Shaughnessy, Assistant Curator of Contemporary Art at the National Gallery.  I was interested to learn that Bourgeois spent more than 30 years in analysis. Through that self-understanding, she was able to access her deep anxieties, fears and issues about parental betrayal and turn those problems into deeply moving sculptures.

Bourgeois wrote:"The whole art mechanism is the result of many privileges, and it was a privilege to be part of it…The privilege was the access to the unconscious. It is a fantastic privilege to have access to the unconscious. I had to be worthy of this privilege, and to exercise it." 

This has been a week of interconnecting threads related to the idea of the feminine, intuition and the unconscious. My own art practice/my path, is informed by intuition.  I let the work lead the way. While there must be a balance between intuition and a critical analysis of the process-right brain/left brain; masculine/feminine-in order to create a strong work of art, I begin with intuition. This process opens a door into the unconscious and can teach us about ourselves.  And although it is a place of mystery and magic, it can take you to places you've never seen.  It can take courage to open that door.

"You have to have the courage to take risks. 
You have to have independence.
All these things are gifts.
They are blessings".  
Louise Bourgeois

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Lines of Desire-Paths We Follow

Lines of Desire 1351    60 x 72"  Oil/Cold wax on canvas  © 2013 Janice Mason Steeves

I am interested in paths.  Trails that emerge from human or animal footfall are called Lines of Desire.  It is the name that landscape architects give to those spontaneous narrow paths-the shortcuts- that people make across fields, or woodlands that do not follow the paved walkways.  Sometimes called social pathways, they have been created over time by people repeatedly walking the same track.
I'm calling my new body of work, Lines of Desire to indicate the path that I am travelling throughout this series and the route I have travelled to get to this work. It is the same title I gave to an earlier body of work.  I wanted to revisit the idea.  My work has always been influenced by the idea of place-whether it be the sacred places/pilgrimage sites that have drawn me to various countries, the prairies where I grew up, the land I live on now, or the inner place of spirit.  The search for place has been an outer journey as well as an internal one. The life-threatening illness of my dear friend Susan has influenced this most recent work as I wrote about in my last blog post.  Her courage has inspired me to consider gratitude on a daily basis and taken me on a different road in my painting than the one I have followed for the past year or two.

I'm following the well-worn path of gratitude.

The root of joy is gratefulness...It is not joy that makes us grateful; it is gratitude that makes us joyful.” 
― David Steindl-Rast

Everything is a gift. The degree to which we are awake to this truth is a measure of our gratefullness, and gratefullness is a measure of our aliveness.” 
― David Steindl-Rast

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Vulnerability in Life and Art

New Work 1334    30x30"   oil/cold wax on panel  © 2013 Janice Mason Steeves

New Work 1335   16x16"  oil/cold wax on panel © 2013 Janice Mason Steeves

Red 1   16x16"  oil/cold wax on panel ©2013 Janice Mason Steeves

I am reading the wonderful book, Daring Greatly by Brené Brown.  She writes of vulnerability. She describes it as the experience of uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure that we face every day. Vulnerability isn't weakness, she says, but "it is, in truth, our most accurate measure of courage." 

I think of the work I am currently doing and how different it is from the work of the past year.  This past year, I worked on a series I called Silence. There is an urgent importance I feel, in finding quiet space in our lives and in our work.  It's vital as well to create quiet spaces in our paintings, where we allow breath to enter.  This felt like a series I could work on for years.

In April, after not painting for a month because of the demands of exhibitions and workshops, I began to work in the studio by playing on small paper panels. I painted quickly and freely, using quirky mark-making and line and bright combinations of colours.  The excitement for this work has continued and it seems to be turning into a series of paintings.  It surprises me the quick shift in direction and I've been trying to understand the reason behind this shift.  It came to me in the past few days, in the ah ha moment where we remember how our lives and our work and the world are interconnected.

One night this past January, my good friend Susan and I went to a movie.  One week later she began having dizzy spells.  Within the month she was in the hospital diagnosed with a brain tumour.  She has remained in hospital since.  Susan can't walk or even get out of bed without assistance. Her speech seems to be improving although it's sometimes very difficult to understand her.  She doesn't seem to be bothered too much by this, and still tries her best to communicate, even leaving messages on my phone from time to time.  As she fights for her life, she holds to her goal of becoming well enough to attend her daughter's wedding in August.

I realize that my new work is about joy and gratitude.  Joy and gratitude are what Susan's illness is reminding me to focus on every day.  Gratitude for her friendship and her courage. I am grateful that I am healthy, that I can walk and I can paint.  

The art critic that sits on my shoulder tells me that contemporary art should not be about joy and gratitude.  It requires a much more weighty construct.  

I brush the critic off my shoulder.  Susan's vulnerability is physical.  Mine is emotional-it's something that artist's have to deal with on a daily basis: do we put ourselves out there in an open, honest, truthful way?  Or do we hide that light, hoping the critic will like us more that way.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Getting Back to Painting

I have been away from painting for most of the past month.  I taught three cold wax and oil workshops and had two exhibitions, one in Edmonton at Bugera Matheson Gallery and another in Guelph that runs until the end of the month at Renann Isaacs Contemporary Art.  I guess that's why I haven't had much time in my studio.

Sometimes I need to ease my way back into my studio work by playing.  I wrote about Maintaining the Spirit of Play in a post almost exactly two years ago.  I guess the same issues  continue to circle around and around.

A major component of play is  surrender.   I call it the Art of Surrender because it's difficult to explain and often difficult to accomplish.  You know when you've achieved it because you can feel it.  It's a huge relief.  Surrender literally means to stop fighting.  To stop fighting with yourself and the natural flow of life.  It's not about inaction, it's about working with that energy of surrender to take action.  When we are in control mode, it feels like paddling upstream, fighting the current.  The canoe is going nowhere.  What if you pull your paddle out of the water and let the canoe turn around and go with the current instead?  Now you are in the energy of surrender.  It's a whole different feeling.

One suggestion is to work fast and loose on many panels or sheets of paper.  On the small works above, I  used 8x10"  Multimedia Artboard.  It's a lovely stiff resin-coated paper. I can use oil paints on the paper panels without gessoing them.   Using oils and cold wax medium, I mixed a blue and brown together to make a dark colour,  I mixed  some greys, a couple of browns and a warm white colour. I taped several of the paper panels to boards and began to play quickly and freely.  I limited my time so that I would play and not let my mind get into the action. I had no intention of showing them to anyone, but here I am, posting them.  I think it's an interesting topic to discuss: how to get back in your studio again after a hiatus and how to get back through play and surrender.

 When you have a show, it's easy to be influenced by what people say, either positive or negative, to get swept up in sales-if the work sells should I keep painting that way?  If the work doesn't sell, is that a sign that I should change my way of working? My mind and my ego want to jump in and get involved in helping me out. Taking a break is not a bad idea after a show. 

 In  the film, With My Back to the World, Agnes Martin speaks about not getting too far above or below the 'line'.  She was discussing her  minimalist paintings and referring to the horizontal  lines she makes in her work.  Her  lines represent to her the calmness a person should feel and the importance of balance in life.  She said that she keeps herself close to the centre line, not letting the opinions of the world influence her work.

Getting back into the flow of my work sometimes takes me a little time.  My way is to ease into it, working small and quickly, letting myself play using various media.  I make no judgments as I work.  Play doesn't involve judgment.   Right now, I'll play for a while and work through that getting back into the studio feeling.  And maybe the play will teach me something that I can bring into my other work.  Maybe my other work will change to be more like the play pieces.....................anything is possible.

The creation of something new is not accomplished by the intellect, but by the play instinct.   Carl Jung

You've achieved success in your field when you don't know whether what you're doing is  work or play.  Warren Beatty.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Cold Wax Workshop

I taught a  workshop this past weekend in the stunningly beautiful arts centre called Visual Arts Mississauga. It's a very contemporary building set on the forested grounds of Riverwood, a 150 acre park in the centre of Mississauga.

Our classroom studio had floor to ceiling windows  looking onto a long expanse of snowy  forest.  Ours was a small class of only 5 students which allowed a lot of time for individual attention.  I continue to be amazed at how each person's work is so different from the next.  Always our goal in art is to find our own voice.  I like to remind artists that it's already there, you can see that when you look around the room, even on the first day of a workshop, when people are just beginning to learn about cold wax and oil.  As we continue to grow and work and develop more technical and compositional skills our voices grow stronger and clearer. 

There were many breakthroughs in this workshop as artists made discoveries about their art and themselves.  I find that my classes are never just about technique, composition and the elements of design.  There are always life lessons that come up as they do for me in my own studio.  And it interests me greatly to help artists make those connections with their art so they come away at the end of a weekend feeling that they know more about themselves, more about what fears might hold them back, what blocks they might have, what they might let go of to allow them to move forward.

I don't mean the workshops to be therapy sessions.  It's just that art leads us if we allow it.  Art teaches us.   One woman in the workshop was told once, not to let the work win.   I thought about that for a while.  Art isn't about winning and losing. We can learn to flow with the painting and follow it's lead. It's a conversation. And when you and your painting are working together, there are times when magic can happen.  It's important to learn all the technical skills and techniques, and then, holding that knowledge, coming to each piece as a beginner, letting the work lead the way.

There was a wonderful energy in the group this past weekend.  They were very courageous artists who took risks and allowed uncertainty in.  We all walked away at the end of the weekend exhausted, but feeling that something really positive happened here.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

The Fear of Getting Feedback

A Quiet Place 2  16x16" Oil/cold wax on paper © 2013 Janice Mason Steeves

A few weeks ago,  Rebecca Crowell and I wrote a co-blog post about Visual Language and the Art of Critique.  Later on, I  posted a followup conversation called Writing, Creativity and Critique: A Conversation, with two writer friends of mine:  Kim Echlin and Sandra Campbell, who meet regularly to give feedback and support to each other in their work.  They commented on how crucial this sort of feedback is to them. I received a number of emails in response to both blog posts.  One thing that came up in various ways was a general sense of fear at going through this process.  Perhaps the fear is justified because of harsh feedback from an instructor in the past.  But people also wondered if their work would be honoured for what they were trying to say and if suggestions for change would affect them negatively.  Many feared that putting words to this process would take away from the work.

I believe that if feedback can be given in a sensitive, playful way, and the artist can learn to loosen their personal attachment to the work, the process can take them into a place of great understanding about themselves, their work and methods. 

To help the artist get to that place, they must feel safe with the instructor and the group they are in. In my Visual Language and the Art of Critique workshop we'll go gently and step-by-step into the process of giving feedback, learning how to speak about a painting, sitting with a painting to hear what it says, and being present as the artist talks about their work.  As Sandra Campbell said in my last post, "… the acceptance of subjectivity in perception is fundamental to creative sharing, an understanding that there is no right way to perceive a work in question-that the uniqueness of our response is what is valuable and interesting.  Listening is fundamental to this dialogue."

Unlike Sandra and Kim, most of us don't have another artist who is working in the same media and at a similar level who is also interested in this form of sharing.  The workshop offers artists an opportunity to be truly present for each other; an experience which can open new windows of understanding. Our work is about visual communication.  To be heard and seen is what we search for.

This 5-day workshop, Visual Language and the Art of Critique will take place at Cullowhee Mountain Arts, in the Blue Ridge mountains of North Carolina from June 24-28.  To register please go to the website: